CAIRO — When Saudi Arabia invested $3.5 billion in Uber in 2016, few outside the business community noticed. When it took a $500 million stake in Live Nation, the world’s largest concert producer, concertgoers barely blinked.
But when it bought a legendary English football team, Newcastle United, last year, thousands of fans gathered outside the club’s stadium in the north east of England to cheer on Saudi Arabia, some of them wearing Saudi-style headdresses. It was a surprising reception for a remote Middle Eastern desert kingdom better known for oil than sport or entertainment, and often a target of international condemnation for its human rights record.
No wonder, then, that Saudi Arabia saw the opportunity this year to fund a new, fledgling golf tournament to challenge the PGA Tour, an investment that has shaken the world of professional golf and distributed its biggest stars.
The kingdom sees sport as a winning formula to refresh its image, part of a campaign led by its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to transform the country from a sleepy, conservative oil producer into a dynamic hotspot for tourism, investment , futuristic technology and more.
“In what other circumstances would you get that to welcome a Saudi investment?” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf politics scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said of the reaction from Newcastle fans. “That shows the appeal.”
The Saudi funding of the fledgling LIV Golf circuit is the latest example of Gulf monarchies pouring enormous oil wealth into sports and culture over the past decade or more, in hopes of raising the international profile of their countries and how they are viewed in the West.
Bahrain has hosted Formula 1 races; the United Arab Emirates has opened branches of the Louvre and New York University in Abu Dhabi, the capital. Elite football has been a particularly popular investment: the Emirates royal family bought Manchester City, another English team, while Qatar picked up Paris Saint-Germain in France. Later this year, Qatar – a small monarchy that had no reputation for sports before pumping billions of dollars into its football program – will be the first Arab country to host the World Cup.
But in some ways it is the Saudis who have the longest way to go, and they have made the most startling changes in recent years.
Prince Mohammed has spearheaded a massive overhaul aimed at taking the kingdom’s economy off oil, creating private sector jobs for young Saudis, who make up more than half of the population, and society. to open. He has developed a tourism industry and drummed up investment, encouraged concerts and movies for young Saudis who have long been hungry for such entertainment, and removed the restrictions that kept women in black dresses from head to toe, barring them from driving and forbidding them to mingle. with men in public.
Since 2015, when the prince began his ascent to lead the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on glittering concerts, heritage sites, rousing art exhibits, a film festival and other cultural offerings. The kingdom has also invested more than $1.9 billion in sports over the past five years, according to a tally by Grant Liberty, a British-based human rights organization.
In addition to the Newcastle acquisition and the arrival of the LIV Golf Invitational, the Saudi-funded golf upstart, Saudi Arabia has also paid to host high-profile boxing matches ($100 million), Formula 1 races (reportedly $65 million). per race), a snooker tournament ($33 million) and a series of World Wrestling Entertainment events ($500 million). It has approached the Women’s Tennis Association about organizing a tournament. It even invests in e-sports.
While it remains unclear how much profit these investments will bring, they offer a range of other benefits.
First, they brought the name of Saudi Arabia into the news in ways unrelated to the bleak human rights situation, the stalemate in Yemen, the murder by Saudi agents of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 or the incarceration of dissidents, activists and others. Saudis criticize the government.
According to Grant Liberty and other critics, that’s exactly the point of the spending wave.
As world famous athletes and sporting events associate with the country, “That creates a story of, ‘Well, they bought this, they bought the land,'” said Lucy Rae, who worked on a Grant Liberty report that accused the kingdom of using money to “sport” his reputation. “It’s the softening of the image of Saudi Arabia, that’s what they would like.”
The danger, she added, was that “these sports stars support a brutal, repressive regime that silences any opposition just because it holds a view different from the regime itself.”
Through a government spokeswoman, Saudi officials declined to comment on this article.
But sport is also part of a more sweeping vision that Prince Mohammed has to make Saudi Arabia a global tourist destination. A kingdom that once only welcomed Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca is now opening tourist attractions across the country, hoping to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2030. As a measure of the ambition of that goal, France, the most visited country in the world, received 90 million tourists in 2019.
Some of the country’s tourism projects, including a heritage site billed as a less crowded twin of Jordan’s famed sculpted city of Petra, can draw a wide range of visitors. But many of the projects are aimed at the rich and ultra-rich, such as a cluster of multi-star resorts on the Red Sea coast and a luxury wellness retreat further afield.
In a valley outside Riyadh, the capital, the kingdom is building a development it calls “Riyadh’s very own Beverly Hills”, with luxury villas and a golf course designed by Greg Norman, the former world No. 1 to head LIV Golf . (Nearby is Diriyah Gate, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, museums, residential developments, and a car race track.)
“They need the attention of the world’s wealthy individuals, and to get them to both visit and invest in Saudi Arabia’s post-oil future,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which has studied the country’s tourism investment. “If you look at it in that context, golf makes a lot of sense, or does it make any sense.”
Bringing golf stars like Phil Mickelson to the Saudi job could spark the interest of the kind of global elite that Saudi Arabia hopes to visit and invest in the kingdom, catapulting it to a whole new level of prestige and influence.
“They want to be seen as the place where the rich and powerful come together,” Ms Diwan said.
“That is hugely important for Saudi Arabia and for MBS personally,” she added, referring to Prince Mohammed. “He really wants Saudi Arabia to be seen as a player.”
That demographic could include former President Donald J. Trump, with whom Prince Mohammed had a close relationship. One of the LIV Golf events, in late July, will take place at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ
Like the movie theaters, the concerts and the relaxed social restrictions, sport is helping to recast Saudi Arabia as a more business-friendly, livable place — a major shift for a country trying to lure investors and persuade businesses to do so. their regional headquarters (and the foreign expats who work for them) from Dubai, a playground of fine dining and nightlife, to Riyadh, long derided as a backwater.
Forced by a combination of tax breaks and threats that companies that did not relocate risk losing Saudi government contracts, several dozen companies have announced plans in Riyadh, though it’s unclear whether those operations are genuine regional headquarters or simply offices large enough to accommodate the to satisfy Saudis.
But analysts say the kingdom recognizes it still needs to build entertainment and leisure time for expats and Saudis alike.
Golf does not turn Riyadh into Dubai. But it brings it one step closer.